The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honor Tupac Shakur knew he’d never live to see
‘I want when they see me, every day when I’m breathin’, it’s for us to go farther,’ said Shakur. ‘Every time I speak I want the truth to come out.’
Tupac was never supposed to be Bishop.
While waiting on a solo record deal in late 1990, the 2017 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee decided to slide through a movie audition with fellow Digital Underground member Money-B. The call was for a movie titled Juice, and B’s audition was for the role of Bishop, the film’s live wire. With insecurities that predisposed him to psychotic outbursts and homicidal impulses, Bishop’s character jumped off the script. B’s attempt wasn’t enough to land him the part. So ’Pac asked for a try.
The film’s producer, Neal Moritz — who would later work on 1999’s Cruel Intentions and Blue Streak, multiple installments of the The Fast and the Furious series and 2012’s 21 Jump Street — had no clue who Tupac Amaru Shakur was. And he certainly had no clue about Shakur’s high school theater experience at the Baltimore School for the Arts. And frankly, Moritz had nothing to lose giving Money B’s friend a shot. “[Tupac] was dynamic, bold, powerful, magnetic — any word you want to use,” Moritz said in Cathy Scott’s 1997 The Killing of Tupac Shakur. “Tupac was it. We cast him right on the spot.”
’Pac not only executed the script, he became the paranoid and sadistic Bishop — a gift and curse that would haunt him for the remainder of his days. Many mistakenly thought Shakur wasn’t acting Bishop but merely portraying an extension of himself. And his intensity in the role may have come from an inner desperation: Aside from Shakur, no one quite understood that he was in a race against time. Filmed in Harlem with Spike Lee’s cinematographer Ernest Dickerson as director, Moritz couldn’t wait to congratulate the blessing he never saw coming.
“Ten years from now,” he told Shakur, “you’re going to be a star.” Moritz believed he’d witnessed the birth of Hollywood’s next transcendent thespian. It was as much a thrill for him as it had to have been for Shakur. But Moritz could’ve never predicted the response.
“Ten years from now,” ‘Pac said matter-of-factly, “I’m not going to be alive.”
Shakur was undoubtedly dramatic. This was the guy who spat (repeatedly) on reporters and gave them the finger. He flaunted his “THUG LIFE” tattoo. He fell in love with Janet Jackson during the filming of 1993’s Poetic Justice. He was also the guy who checked himself out of a hospital, fearing for his life, three days after being shot five times in midtown New York City and two days after having been convicted of sex abuse — a crime he went to his grave vehemently denying. What he told Moritz, though, wasn’t for the sake of drama. Death didn’t haunt Shakur as much as it became a fact of who Shakur was and, weirdly, a fate he sought to meet.
“Nah, I didn’t,” he told MTV’s Tabitha Soren in 1995 shortly after being bailed out of prison by Suge Knight and Death Row Records. She’d asked whether he thought he was going to die after the 1994 shooting. “I know how it’s gonna be when I die. It’s gonna be no noise. You won’t hear people screaming. I’ma fade out.”
Less than a year later, in an intensive care unit in Las Vegas’ University Medical Center, he did just that. His last words had happened at the scene of the crime. During his final moments of consciousness, he said “F– you,” to the police responders who found his bloody body at the corner of Koval and Flamingo minutes after the Sept. 7, 1996, shooting. At the hospital he was heavily sedated with a potluck of medicines. Machines performed the functions his body normally would.
’Pac died a week later. With the blessing of his mother, Afeni Shakur, under Jada Pinkett’s tears and the pain of fiancée Kidada Jones’ regret. No screams. No noise. Just how he’d prophesied. He faded away. A muted conclusion to his generation’s most defiant musical leader.
Embracing the blessings of life many receive wasn’t in Shakur’s destiny. He knew many misunderstood him and painted him as crazy. And he knew his truths would never be accepted while air still resided in his lungs. To the America who viewed him as an ill, he was just another “n—a with an attitude.”
He frequently alluded to the realization that he’d never live long enough to hear the adoration he commanded, like Allen Iverson’s nod to him (and others) at his Basketball Hall of Fame induction last year. Shakur knew he wouldn’t have an opportunity to say, “I do.” Or have kids, as he said on 1995’s “So Many Tears,” so he could see a part of me that wasn’t always shaded.
In the final weeks of his life, though, the concept of death began a tug of war with a future. A bright one, at that. A future involving marriage and children with Jones, daughter of Quincy. She was the one whom he promised every night “I’d take a bullet for you.”
Still, Shakur knew he wouldn’t live long enough to see moments like the one scheduled at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center this weekend. He is the first solo rapper to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and this year’s inductees include Pearl Jam, Journey, Joan Baez and more. The meaning of ’Pac’s induction spans beyond music because his impact is felt beyond hit records, diamond-selling albums and rap beef. As right as he was wrong, as brilliant as he was problematic and as intellectually adventurous as he was set in his ways, there’s no one way to discuss the man without embracing the entirety of his revolutionary yet destructive spirit. He barely lived to see 25.
History taught him that the fight to speak for communities silenced by mainstream America wasn’t synonymous with a long life. He mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X throughout his life as icons whose work he and his generation could draw inspiration from, and whose struggles and sacrifices he saw in his own.
“It’s time to be like [King and Malcolm X], as strong as them,” he said. “They were mortal men like us, and every one of us can be like them.” Premonitions of his own demise became warped iterations of King’s “Mountaintop” speech, or “1965,” the final erratic and emotional chapter in Malcolm X’s autobiography. Oftentimes when ’Pac spoke of life in the future, he was never there, but his spirit always was. Raised by revolutionaries and Panthers, he inherited the price tag of black rebellion. He lived life preparing for death.
“I don’t wanna be 50 years old at a BET We Shall Overcome Achievement Awards. Not me,” he said. “I want when they see me, every day when I’m breathin’, it’s for us to go farther. Every time I speak I want the truth to come out. Every time I speak I wanna shiver.”
It should be soothing to hear Snoop Dogg commemorate his fallen friend, former labelmate and, perhaps most fascinating, the man he credits with saving his marriage. In an ideal world, Jada Pinkett and Mike Tyson — two people who knew him, his fears and ambitions better than most, and who saw the shifts in outlook and personality throughout the various stages in his life — would be in attendance. And the parley about who should or should not have performed his music at his induction will rage for years.
Where Shakur ranks all-time in the history of music is up for debate. Whether he should be rap’s first solo inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is, too. What’s not debatable is the gravitational pull he has and will continue to have on society at large. As polarizing today as he was in the ’90s when he went eye to eye with Congress and police departments, he lived rap’s most emotional life story. Shakur exceeded his potential, yet — and this is what’s so painful — left even more on the table. His life was a Shakespearean tragedy, only with weed, guns and the unyielding desire to change the only reality he’d ever known.
“If I can’t live free, if I can’t live with the same respect as the next man, I don’t wanna be here. [Because] God has cursed me to see what life should be like,” he said in 1994. “If God wanted me to be this person and be happy here, He wouldn’t let me feel so oppressed. He wouldn’t let me feel so trampled on. He wouldn’t let me think the things I think. So I feel like I’m doing God’s work.”
The tragedy for all of us, and for musical and popular culture, is that it’s morbidly and depressingly fitting that Tupac isn’t here to see the heights of his immortality. And worse, he didn’t intend to be here.